By the time the dirt cheap slasher flick Sorority House Massacre made the journey to DVD it was being marketed as a companion piece to the similarly-titled Slumber Party Massacre franchise. The two properties aren’t entirely dissimilar. At the very least they’re both female-directed slashers (in this case the sole credit of someone named Carol Frank), which somewhat of a rarity in a genre that relies so heavily on the male gaze to generate its terror. Sorority House Massacre has a much more easily recognizable point of reference with connections that run a little deeper than that titular similarity, though. The film is largely a cheap knockoff of the seminal John Carpenter slasher Halloween, and not only because Halloween pioneered the art form. Sorority House Massacre‘s escaped mental patient killer shares Michael exact backstory, right down tot the sister who escaped the bloody end of his knife. The difference is, of course, that this time his potential meat-bag victim of a sibling is a sorority pledge college student instead of a high school teenybopper.
Yet, there’s a really strange undertone to Sorority House Massacre that elevates it above the lowly dregs of solely functioning as a blatant Halloween ripoff. The film’s title card, which spells “Sorority House” in Greek letters & “Massacre” in corny-even-for-its-time bloodsplatter, promises the same kind of shameless gore fest that opens De Palma’s Blow Out. Indeed, its very limited theater fun positions the film essentially as a straight-to-VHS horror, but I honestly believe it pulls off something much more interesting than what’s typically associated with that pedigree. Sorority House Massacre sets itself apart from its dirt cheap home video peers by playing with the loopy surreality of dream logic & memory, allowing the simple concept of deja vu to tamper with & complicate its visual narrative. The film is bargain basement trash, to be clear, but in the moments where it allows fragments of the past to interrupt its strict genre film present, it somehow manages to approach an art house effect.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the film’s plot follows a young college student who moves into a sorority house that just happens to be the exact childhood home where her estranged brother murdered every member of their family in cold blood. It’s a trauma she doesn’t remember, since she was a young child at the time & her brother has been institutionalized ever since. The film keeps the exact details of this setup clouded as long as it possibly can, but as soon as you can piece together the Halloween mimicry, that obfuscation is a wasted effort. As I said, the most interesting aspect of the film is not the plot itself, but the unnerving way its visual narrative is affected by memory & dream logic. The film opens with the deja vu-inspired back & forth imagery of the sorority house & the mental institution co-mingling. Then the childhood memories creep in: little girls playing on the lawn, a creepy dining room tableau of mannequins at a pristinely set dinner table, blood dripping from the ceiling. Things get even weirder from there as our Prime Victim starts having visions of her brother, a total stranger, attempting to stab her from the other side of a mirror. If this weirdness were entirely isolated to nightmare sequences it’d be one thing, but the way past & memory mixes with the two locations in the waking life present is a much more fascinating push & pull than that.
Of course, that’s not to say that Sorority House Massacre is some lost gem from a short-lived auteur. Carol Frank, whoever she is, constructs a visually interesting slasher here, but it’s still a trashy slasher film nonetheless. As a camp fest, the film delivers on the cheap dream imagery, terrible acting, and cheesy dialogue. Sometimes this aspect cheapens the artier visual experimentation, like in a classroom montage that directly references deja vu, foreshadowing, pop psychology, and mortality or in lines like “The knife is a phallic symbol!” & “Maybe we’re the haunted sorority house after all!” Any hopes of the film being taken seriously are already dashed by the time a cheap John Carpenter knockoff synth score & a first person cam from the killer’s POV confirm the its Halloween ripoff pedigree, though. It also doesn’t help that the film’s stabbing deaths are never brutal or creative enough to be particularly memorable. And that’s not even to mention the scene where the girls are watching TV during a power outage or the one where a boom mic makes a guest appearance on their walk to class.
I think what does make Sorority House Massacre feel special in the context of its genre is its uniquely feminine energy. The title promises the salaciousness of a softcore porno, but the nude breasts that are on display, although copious, are somehow treated less exploitatively than they would normally be in the genre. For instance, the first nude scene features not one, but three topless co-eds, but it’s a hilariously cheesy dress-up montage featuring enough saxophone riffs & rapid outfit changes to make even the most dedicated Blossom or Teen Witch fans roll their eyes. Just as the booby-leering is oddly diffused, the film also softens the inherently misogynistic nature of the slasher genre’s woman-hunting by culling most of its terror from weird images like bleeding mirrors & photographs instead of the more traditional lady-stabbing horror, which plays here almost like an afterthought.
Given this slightly feminized energy and the strange back & forth of the dream & deja vu imagery, I’m more than willing to forgive Sorority House Massacre‘s glaring similarities to the Halloween franchise. In the long run, what is it that makes a film like this a “ripoff” & films like It Follows or The Final Girls an “homage” except the thirty years that separate their release dates? Sorority House Massacre is not a mindblowing, exceptional forgotten gem of the slasher genre by any means, but it is a lot more visually striking & weirdly energetic than I expected. If nothing else, when I discovered that a Sorority House Massacre II was released in 1990, I found myself surprisingly game,which might be the best possible litmus test for a straight-to-VHS slasher of this caliber.